At the film festival: In frantic search of the sacred
Courtesy: Cairo International Film Festival

As I walk down the halls of the Cairo international Film Festival, at Cairo Opera House, I overhear someone talking about a film they’re planning to watch.

Trying to forget about what’s happening in the world outside, and without much thought, I walk into one of the packed screening halls to find myself amid strangers. As the opening credits finally show on the screen, I nestle down in my chair in silence.

At the end of what I consider an undeniably peculiar film, I take a look at the faces around me. Although a few look happy, I discern expressions varying between frustration and bitter smirks, which leads me to wonder: “What were they thinking? What do we actually expect from the films we watch?”

After each screening, I’m one of the most jubilant — not because I’m a naturally happy person, God forbid — but simply because I enjoy games and always feel grateful to be part of such two-hour experiences. I imagine myself being invited by a stranger I’ve never met before to be part of his personal novelty, to witness it in the making.  

As I take a look the following morning at the film review pages and friends’ blogs, I find long, complex, analysis-ridden film criticism. Commendable as it ostensibly seems, as I get deeper into reading, a strong feeling that I’m reading a judge’s verdict suddenly strikes me.

As if it’s a dream I see that friend, critic or even filmmaker sitting at the bottom of a pillar at the Umayyad Mosque. Around him people assemble behind their screens. In his heart he finds enough light to hold people’s consciousness accountable. It’s a trait to envy whoever possesses it — I don’t wish I had it though — and the judge finds no harm in trying a movie. And of course — because he sees himself as a judge — he drifts toward judging people according to their preferences, ideologies, political, social or even religious choices. The judge wonders about the point of a specific character’s presence in the movie or the reason for a scene, and reflects these questions of his on the suspect before him and his artistic beliefs, the filmmaker who voluntarily accepted — if he’s a serious filmmaker — to share with the world, including the judge, the finest of his personal concerns, with heroism the judge has never had and won’t ever have, because he simply decided to judge. 

That judge won’t understand much of what the suspect says. Not because it’s difficult, but because the judge condescends to the suspect, the judge’s words are sent from heaven down to earth, his words are not mistaken. This judge is a cousin of mine in a city suffocated by tradition. We grew up like the others, conservatives, and he’s hanging on close to the approach of our old predecessors. 

The obsessive lookout for the sacred — in a film, artistic school of thought or even an article or blog — stultifies the judge’s mind. Being a judge in a traditional city, he can only admit a sacred script that replaces an older one he already knows. So he rejects the law of playing games, the law of artifice, the law that accepts no law at all, as opposed to his cherished, untested convictions. With a pure conscience, he sits contentedly behind his screen, confidently claiming to be a freethinker perfectly capable of understanding what the films he watches are trying to get at, while voluntarily denying himself part of his freedom of mind by thinking so.

He can neither imagine, nor stand, that he didn’t laugh or cried throughout the whole movie. If a film doesn’t stir any feelings in him, there’s something wrong with the film. He’s unable to come to terms with filmmaking attempts that end up in distraction or futility. In his conventional school of thought, sheer absurdity can only be identified and accepted if blatantly Kafkaesque, but not if manifested in the attempts of a young Brazilian filmmaker, or a director from the East. He can perceive mysticism, for example, in the lyrics of a sheikh’s rhymed chanting, but not in a scene of young people dancing to trance music. This is how he is, he believes that if it’s not well-received by the wider mass of audience, a film must be deranged or disdainful. At the same time, he censures a filmmaker for producing a film every year, for one year isn’t enough to reach the required sacredness. He doesn’t like watching too many works, he prefers few, but sacred. This is the son of my old city, it doesn’t matter how hard he tries to fix his eyes, he only sees what he sees. 

Since he assumes the judge’s role, he believes he skillfully spots “flaws” in films. Such flaws make him what he is, watching movies only to judge them. So having all the evidence against a movie, and being familiar of course with the subconscience of its makers, the judge and his followers deliver a “guilty” verdict because it’s not as sacred as it should be. And because he has supporting documents of conclusive nature, he can also affirm that a film replicates another film, for no reason but the sheer coincidence that the two reverberate similar visions. In other words, if a film doesn’t bring forth a new level of sacredness, according to what he thinks, then it’s a replication of an old sacred. In his world, thoughts and visions shouldn’t intersect or draw on one another, as this takes away from their intrinsic originality and sacredness. He turns a blind eye to the fact that even sacred scripts of different religions inevitably share commonalities. This is how things are in reality.

In the 20th century, a philosopher who used to lecture at a renowned French academy wouldn’t hold exams for his students and willingly gave them all full marks. When asked why, he responded: “Here, I only share what’s on my mind, therefore I’m in no place to judge the knowledge of anybody, even academically.” I understand this very well, of course.

These lines might be thought of as a call against stimulating art debates and constructive discussions. But on the contrary, I plead for judges to give up idealization and to engage, if only once, with the real-life debates beyond the parameters of their screens. Only by doing so will we be able to leave a rich legacy of earnest attempts toward real cinema.

When the rush of thoughts in my mind finally stops, I switch on my phone and go back to the “normalcy” of the outside world. I leave the halls of the Cairo Opera House, where everyone’s trying to enforce a certain level of discipline and values. Believing it’s a naturally sacred place, not a space for playing games and freely practicing some imagination and artifice, the judges like to perfectly maintain their own game of discipline there. But some don’t care much for all that, and they opt to go out and play a little. 

This article was originally published in Arabic on Ahmad Abdalla’s blog.

Nahla Osman 
Ahmad Abdalla 

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